LONDON >> The mysterious oil painting titled “Waiting in the Hotel Room” sold for a relatively modest $28,200 last week on the opening night of an exhibition in the upscale Mayfair district of London, where softly lighted galleries staffed by velvet-voiced staff members sell artworks that can fetch millions.
But for all the painting’s apparent ordinariness — a man in a dark suit viewed from behind as he looks out through the net curtains of a plushly appointed room, his hands clasped and his head slightly tilted — it attracted the kind of attention here that would normally go to the sale of an old European master.
The artist, James Hart Dyke, has drawn favorable reviews for his past work, mainly his landscapes. But what put Hart Dyke in Britain’s headlines was that the dozens of paintings and watercolors on display at the Mount Street Galleries offered unprecedented glimpses into the world of the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as SIS or MI6, which has never before permitted an outsider to make a graphic record of its hidden world.
The man in the hotel room window was a spy for MI6, Britain’s counterpart to the CIA. For whom or what he was waiting, or where, is left for the viewer to guess, since Hart Dyke, a lithe, balding 43-year-old who has trekked in the high Himalayas, enjoyed free-fall parachute jumping and served as a reserve army officer, was sworn to secrecy under the Official Secrets Act before he was invited to spend a year following and sketching Britain’s “spooks.”
The artist’s standard response to questions about the intrigue behind the paintings suggests that he acquired something of the clandestine mindset in his months inside Vauxhall Cross, the agency’s headquarters in central London, and on trips to MI6 stations in Afghanistan, Africa and eastern Europe.
“I can’t say,” he said with a smile when asked what the man in the hotel room was doing. To that, he added, “Sorry, but I’ve become pretty good at saying, ‘I can’t tell you that, it’s secret.’ ”
Another canvas, titled “Icebreaker,” shows a stylish young woman with short-cropped hair sitting on a bar stool, fingers to her chin and a half-drunk martini before her, with a handsome, fair-haired young man in a black T-shirt two bar stools away. An accompanying catalog note explains, “An officer contemplates how she might strike up a conversation with her target.”
One thing mostly missing from the works, apart from the alluring woman nursing a martini, is any hint of the suave milieu of James Bond. For decades, the world’s sense of Britain’s spies — how they dress, how they behave, their high-tech tradecraft — has been formed in Bond’s image. But MI6 insiders have long said that the fictional life of 007 was a far cry from the gritty realities: the painstaking planning, the watching and waiting, and the hardscrabble locations, as well as the adrenaline highs. As one of Hart Dyke’s notes in the catalog puts it, “In the world of the spy, extraordinary events happen in the midst of the mundane.”
It was to record those realities — for the service itself, as much as for the public — that Sir John Scarlett, then the MI6 chief, approved the approach to Hart Dyke as part of the centenary observances of “the service” in 2009. That milestone in MI6’s status as the Western world’s longest continuously operational intelligence service was also marked by an 800-page book, “MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service,” published last year and based on access to the agency’s pre-1949 archive granted to Keith Jeffery, the author.
The watchword for both enterprises has been high caution, as befitting an organization that began stepping into the public domain only in the past 20 years. For decades, even its existence was secret; its chief’s identity was not publicly divulged until 1992. Scarlett, who retired in 2009, was the first C — the service’s signature name for its boss — to have a public profile when he took the job, having previously served under Prime Minister Tony Blair as the government’s chief intelligence coordinator during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Scarlett, now a consultant to Morgan Stanley in London, said in a telephone interview that inviting a painter into the inner sanctums of the service was, in a sense, only an extension of a long-established practice of engaging with outsiders. “The service doesn’t live in a closed box,” he said. “People with special talents come in to help us all the time.”
Left unsaid was that Hart Dyke’s selection owed much to his record of having worked on other important projects. Before the MI6 commission, he spent weeks on combat deployment in Afghanistan with the Grenadier Guards, one of Britain’s crack army units, and traveled abroad on several official tours with Prince Charles.
The theme for the project, Hart Dyke said, was “to show what SIS officers do without showing too much” — and that he was to do it at his own expense. The arrangement also stipulated that all the works be submitted for MI6 approval, a commitment that resulted in Hart Dyke’s having to remove some details from half a dozen works, leaving what he described as “holes” in the canvases. “I think the holes add to the sense of intrigue,” he said.